Bertrand Russell Reveals the 4 Human Desires That Make Our World: Acquisitiveness, Rivalry, Vanity & Love of Power

Con­trary to Aris­to­tle, the emi­nent logi­cian, philoso­pher, and activist Bertrand Rus­sell believed that virtue and moral­i­ty play lit­tle part in polit­i­cal life. Rather, what most dri­ves us to action, he argued, is self­ish desire. Rus­sel­l’s polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy could seem almost Machi­avel­lian, most notably in his Nobel Prize speech 1950, in which he pro­claims that “all human activ­i­ty is prompt­ed by desire.” (Hear Rus­sell read an excerpt above.)

There is a whol­ly fal­la­cious the­o­ry advanced by some earnest moral­ists to the effect that it is pos­si­ble to resist desire in the inter­ests of duty and moral prin­ci­ple. I say this is fal­la­cious, not because no man ever acts from a sense of duty, but because duty has no hold on him unless he desires to be duti­ful. If you wish to know what men will do, you must know not only, or prin­ci­pal­ly, their mate­r­i­al cir­cum­stances, but rather the whole sys­tem of their desires with their rel­a­tive strengths.

Russell’s argu­ment about desire admits “there is no lim­it to the efforts that men will make, or to the vio­lence that they will dis­play” in the face of per­ceived scarci­ty, and his obser­va­tions recall not only the realpoli­tik of Machi­avel­li, but the insights of that most promi­nent the­o­rist of desire, Sig­mund Freud.

Man dif­fers from oth­er ani­mals in one very impor­tant respect, and that is that he has some desires which are, so to speak, infi­nite, which can nev­er be ful­ly grat­i­fied, and which would keep him rest­less even in Par­adise. The boa con­stric­tor, when he has had an ade­quate meal, goes to sleep, and does not wake until he needs anoth­er meal. Human beings, for the most part, are not like this. 

Rather than libidi­nous instincts, how­ev­er, Rus­sell names four main polit­i­cal desires that can­not be sat­is­fied: Acquis­i­tive­ness (“the wish to pos­sess as much as pos­si­ble), Rival­ry (“a much stronger motive”), Van­i­ty (“a motive of immense poten­cy”), and Love of Pow­er (“which out­weighs them all”). We may note the tremen­dous degree to which all four desires seem active­ly at work in shap­ing our cur­rent world. All four of these qual­i­ties greet us every morn­ing on our smart­phones and nev­er let up, day after day. But it has always been so to one degree or anoth­er, Rus­sell argues. The impor­tant thing is to be clear­sight­ed on the mat­ter. Although self­ish polit­i­cal desires can and large­ly are destruc­tive, they need not always be so.

Polit­i­cal desires like the love of pow­er may “have oth­er sides which are more desir­able.” Schol­ar­ly and sci­en­tif­ic endeav­ors may be “main­ly actu­at­ed by a love of pow­er.…. In pol­i­tics, also, a reformer may have just as strong a love of pow­er as a despot. It would be a com­plete mis­take to decry love of pow­er alto­geth­er as a motive.” “Rus­sell,” writes Maria Popo­va, is “a thinker of excep­tion­al sen­si­tiv­i­ty to nuance and to the dual­i­ties of which life is woven.” He cau­tions that we can­not sim­ply dis­miss our most pow­er­ful motive as “a whole­sale neg­a­tive dri­ver.”

The real prob­lem, as Rus­sell sees it, lies in “cir­cum­stances in which pop­u­la­tions will fall below self­ish­ness, if self­ish­ness is inter­pret­ed as enlight­ened self-inter­est.” The phe­nom­e­non we observe of peo­ple “vot­ing against their inter­ests” is for Rus­sell an occa­sion “on which they are con­vinced that they are act­ing from ide­al­is­tic motives.”

Much that pass­es as ide­al­ism is dis­guised hatred or dis­guised love of pow­er. When you see large mass­es of men swayed by what appear to be noble motives, it is as well to look below the sur­face and ask your­self what it is that makes these motives effec­tive. It is part­ly because it is so easy to be tak­en in by a facade of nobil­i­ty that a psy­cho­log­i­cal inquiry, such as I have been attempt­ing, is worth mak­ing.

Rather than virtue or moral­i­ty, pol­i­tics most requires “intel­li­gence,” Rus­sell con­cludes, “a thing that can be fos­tered by known meth­ods of edu­ca­tion.” These are not the forms of edu­ca­tion we gen­er­al­ly receive: “Schools are out to teach patri­o­tism,” he says, “news­pa­pers are out to stir up excite­ment; and politi­cians are out to get re-elect­ed. None of the three, there­fore, can do any­thing towards sav­ing the human race from rec­i­p­ro­cal sui­cide.”

The Cold War threat of nuclear anni­hi­la­tion hangs heavy over Russell’s speech. As long as humans are gripped by hatred and fear of oth­ers and held in thrall to polit­i­cal delu­sions, he sug­gests, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of mutu­al­ly assured destruc­tion remains. On the oth­er hand, if we were hon­est about our desires, and “if men were actu­at­ed by self-inter­est,” Rus­sell writes, “which they are not.… if men desired their own hap­pi­ness as ardent­ly as they desired the mis­ery of their neigh­bors.… the whole human race would coop­er­ate.” Read the full text of Rus­sel­l’s Nobel speech here.

via Brain­Pick­ings

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free Online Polit­i­cal Sci­ence Cours­es

7 Nobel Speech­es by 7 Great Writ­ers: Hem­ing­way, Faulkn­er, and More

Bertrand Rus­sell & Buck­min­ster Fuller on Why We Should Work Less, and Live & Learn More

Bertrand Rus­sell: The Every­day Ben­e­fit of Phi­los­o­phy Is That It Helps You Live with Uncer­tain­ty

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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